HIMACHAL PRADESH: Q&A WITH CM JAI RAM THAKUR
Fifty-three-year-old Jai Ram Thakur became the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh practically by default, after P.K. Dhumal, the BJP’s chief ministerial face, lost his election last December. Nine months on, the first-time chief minister appears to have gained a grip on governance. Excerpts from an interview with Asit Jolly:
Q. Did you become the chief minister only because Prem Kumar Dhumal lost his election?
The day after Amit Shah announced that Dhumal would be chief minister, he came to my constituency and indicated that the party was considering a leadership change. Citing that I was a four-time MLA, a minister and state party president, he spoke of a ‘bigger responsibility’ for me. While it is true that had he won, Dhumalji would have been chief minister, it was clear that my name was under consideration well before the elections.
Q. But it has taken the party time to get accustomed to you as the leader?
I have risen from the lowest ranks and served diligently at several important positions. It is just that I haven’t projected myself like some other leaders. So I have never had any trouble finding acceptance amid the party cadre.
Q. There is a perception that you don’t trust civil servants and rely on political advisors. Critics point to large-scale transfers by your government.
Transfers invariably happen when governments change. But I have shuffled less than half the number of officers compared with the previous Congress regime. To bring the benefits of development to the lowest levels, you need people you can trust. But I have a good equation with the bureaucracy and try to work as a team. Unlike some people, I don’t believe you need to shout or talk down to subordinates to make yourself heard.
Q. How has your tenure been so far?
We have taken many new initiatives, but I think the biggest success will come from Jan Manch, a public forum where a cabinet minister visits an assembly segment every month to address grievances. People are participating in their thousands. More than 10,000 complaints have been addressed. There are other schemes, like the Grihani Suvidha Yojana, through which every household in Himachal, including those not covered under the Centre’s Ujjwala scheme, will have an LPG connection within a year. I have had more support from the central government than any previous state government. New tourism, horticulture, agriculture, irrigation and public health projects worth Rs 6,500 crore have already been sanctioned.
Q. Revenue generation is a challenge in a hill state like Himachal. How do you propose to raise resources?
The previous [Congress] regime wreaked havoc on the finances, especially during the months preceding the polls, leading to accumulation of a huge debt. Despite this, we are raising revenue. We have tweaked the excise and mining policies, and are taking measures to prevent any flight of industry, now that the central tax holiday is over. I have also succeeded in kick-starting stalled power projects. All this will help generate fresh revenue for the state.
Q. What about tourism?
It’s a core sector. But traditional destinations like Shimla, Manali, Dalhousie and Dharamshala are at saturation point. I am looking to develop new destinations, like the Janjehli Valley (Mandi), which is more picturesque than Manali. There is also Chanshal in Shimla district, with a huge potential for winter sports. These destinations were ignored in the past because of poor connectivity and a lack of focus by successive governments.
Q. You are said to have an uneasy relationship with Dhumal and J.P. Nadda. Both wanted to be chief minister...
Not at all. Both of them, as well as Shanta Kumarji, are respected veterans. They don’t say much, but when they do, I take their advice seriously.
Q. You have said that you will not act vindictively. But what about the BJP’s ‘chargesheet’ against the Virbhadra Singh government?
I have sought information on the factual position of the charges. When I say I won’t act vindictively, I don’t mean I will look the other way. But unlike earlier regimes, I refuse to make that my focus. Himachal needs development. That will be my priority.
Q. Unlike the chief ministers of other BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana, who are strident on issues like slaughterhouses and refugees, you are viewed as ‘soft’. Himachal Pradesh is a peaceful state and law and order here is much better than in the states you mention. I have my own way of working and don’t necessarily have to emulate them. That said, I respect what the other chief ministers are doing.
Q. The BJP suffered reverses in Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. What is your prediction for 2019?
At the national level, Narendrabhai is clearly the most popular leader. State polls and byelections are not reflective of the national mood. Lok Sabha 2019 will be focused on who can best lead the nation. Modiji’s popularity has only grown during his unblemished tenure as prime minister. Even when opposition leaders attack him, people are not prepared to believe them. He has the complete confidence of the people. We will win all the four Lok Sabha seats in Himachal Pradesh.
The day after Amit Shah announced Dhumal would be CM, he came to my constituency and hinted that a leadership change was on the cards. Citing that I was a four-time MLA, a minister and state party president, he spoke of a ‘bigger responsibility’ for me